Why Ending Homelessness Isn’t That Easy

Housing is only part of the equation in Arlington.

A-SPAN’s Homeless Services Center in Courthouse. Photo by Benjamin C. Tankersley

The face of homelessness in Arlington isn’t necessarily the panhandler on the corner. It could be the woman making your sandwich at the deli, or the parents cheering their kid in the high school gym.

In a county of luxury high-rises, million-dollar homes and stratospheric average incomes, some people are left out of the jet stream of success. Often it is because of mental illness, immigration troubles or domestic abuse. Other times it stems from sudden job loss, mounting medical bills, alcohol or drug addiction, or the aftershocks of childhoods that started with homelessness and came full circle.

Now nine years into a 10-year push to end homelessness here, Arlington County has virtually wiped out homelessness among veterans, and it’s on track to house the vast majority of single individuals who still need a roof over their heads. The homeless population in Arlington dropped from 527 in 2009 to 232 in January 2017, according to the annual Point-in-Time Count done by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Those gains are reflected in places like the Route 50 bridge where Rosslyn meets the Potomac River. Once it was home to an entire community of people without a permanent address. Now it hosts just a few.

These days, David Clark drives past that familiar spot on his way to other places—metaphorically and literally. Clark, 60, spent 26 years homeless, at first warming himself at the same D.C. fire barrel where he had visited his father as a child, then finding his way to the bridge near the Iwo Jima memorial. Today, Clark has his own apartment in Rosslyn. The idea of having access to toilet paper and food piled on top of his microwave thrills him.

Achieving that kind of stability can be harder for homeless parents with kids—a population whose statistics are stubbornly resistant. On paper, the number of homeless families in Arlington dropped from 189 to 85 over the past eight years, according to the Point-in-Time survey. But that underestimates the true number of affected families, says Caroline Jones, head of Doorways for Women and Families, a nonprofit that runs two shelters in Arlington. The count is done in January, when many crash on friends’ couches to keep their children out of the cold. Also, families that were recently homeless and are having most of their rent paid through groups like hers are not counted, even though they are still at risk. “We don’t walk past kids on the street who are homeless. But we do,” Jones says, calling them the “hidden homeless.”

David Clark at his apartment in Rosslyn. Photo by Erick Gibson

In Arlington, the problem has been exacerbated by shrinkage in the number of affordable housing units and an economy that has left many younger families unable to earn a livable wage, Jones says. There’s more public willingness to report domestic abuse, but it means more families are leaving dangerous situations with nowhere to go.

In 2000, about a quarter of Arlington’s housing supply was financially within reach for low- and moderate-income families (those earning 60 percent or less of the area median income). By 2013 that share, which includes both affordable market-rate units and low-income units, had dropped to 9 percent, according to the county’s Affordable Housing Master Plan.

Today, the average one-bedroom garden apartment in Arlington is at least $1,300 a month. To pay for that, a renter would need 30 hours of work per week at $10 an hour, with nothing left over for food, transportation and other expenses. And it’s not just the wage that’s an issue. Simply finding enough hours of work can be a challenge.

Categories: Community